At last, our acclimatization day! A day without the early morning waking and packing, a day where we could sleep in and chill out. Well, the altitude meant I wasn’t really sleeping much in the mornings anyways, and our unheated rooms engendered a literal “chilling out.” And since we missed the Bryaga gompa the day before, our plan was to visit the gompa in the morning, and then hike up to an overlook above the Gangapurna glacier; after that, we could amuse ourselves with the varied (and mostly shuttered) attractions of Manang.
Bryaga was deserted, as the citizens had departed for Kathmandu for the winter, but Kumar found a caretaker and got him to open
up the gompa. The place overlooked the high Manang Valley and the faces of Gangapurna and Annapurna III–it had stood there over a thousand years according to the caretaker. It certainly felt ancient, carved from the rock and hoodoos surrounding the gompa walls. We went inside, taking off our boots and standing on the chilling floor in our socks. There were thousands of miniature Buddhas and assorted demons and gods, all only half-lit in the smudgy, obscure light from a small hanging bulb. It felt as if we had stepped into a pocket closet of the universe, where the gods stored the little extras they don’t need at the moment and then forget about them as they continue to gather. The caretaker explained that this was a very important gompa in Nepal, and showed us pictures of the reincarnate with the Dalai Lama. We asked questions about the reincarnate–whether he was born nearby always or they had to find him (usually nearby) and how they find him (the reincarnate knows he is reincarnated). They say there are no stupid questions–that is a lie. Shane then asked a stupid question that Kumar either didn’t understand or, in deference, pretended not to understand. I would say do not insult the religion-cum-way-of-life of the guide who is taking you over the Himalayas in winter by asking whether the reincarnate is ever born “sitting too close to the microwave,” but that’s just me. Shane’s foolish question won the dumbest question of the trip, a tough competition.
We left the gompa chilled in the feet but with that subtle sense of peace that comes from visiting something larger and older than oneself–like stepping out of the cathedral into the street. Reverence, I guess. We cut out across the valley to walk by a relaxing yak herd. Yaks can’t live below 9,000 feet, or they start to ‘act crazy’ and get very violent. They are a lifeline in the high altitudes, providing much needed dairy and meat and material. Kumar said they didn’t brand the yaks, but some did have little tufts of colored fur or ear cuts or the like, but not many–Nepalis really do known to whom most yaks must belong. As we crossed the valley, we passed under caves hollowed into the chalky walls. Kumar (and Ghopal, who had joined us) explained that these caves were the old redoubts of Tibetan refugees and warriors who were fleeing/fighting China–not the current struggle many of my generation associate with the Beastie Boys and bumper stickers–but old conflicts that have been smoldering for centuries. Roll-up ladders could provide and deny access to the highest caves, but the thought of living above the Manang Valley in a cramped, frozen cave, forced from your home, threatened from all sides–man’s cruelty and tenacity still haunted those recesses.
We eventually reached the path to head up to the glacier overlook. The winds had picked up by then, and a stinging dust sandpapered our faces. We crested one ridge, and to our delight, a partially frozen glacier moraine lake azurely lounged below us. We tried to throw rocks onto the ice from our height to break the sheets, but it was a longer throw than thought, even in the thin air. We continued into the wind, climbing higher and higher, with better views of the glacier as we crept upwards. We could see the dirt and rock that had been forced onto the ice,the massive crevasses, the grinding chunks of solid ice that were carving a new valley over the next million years. To view the glacier is to see geological history in the making–the minuscule moment of our time is eclipsed by the inexorable chewing and gnawing of
ice on rock–it’s simple, beautiful, humbling. Of course, our very presence there had contributed to mankind’s violent war on glaciers–we all flew to Nepal, about the worst thing one person can individually do–and sadly, we seem to be winning. Pictures of the Gangapurna glacier from years before showed a powerful river of snow and ice flowing down almost to the cliffs of Manang village; by the time we arrived, the glacier had retreated up the mountain–are we winning this war so decisively that the mountains have to take a ‘protect the center’ approach? Probably. The Gangapurna glacier was still awe-inspiring, but imagining the prior spread down into the valley I couldn’t help but think of some once-powerful prizefighter reduced to old posters and remembering faded glory.
The wind whipped us so hard at the top that we didn’t stay long, and hustled our way back into Manang. We had agreed to get each other little White Elephant presents in Manang for Boxing Day (since we had celebrated Christmas with the cake, and everything was closed when we arrived in Manang). In the evening, we gathered around the pleasant stove (burning yak ‘cakes’–they really do provide everything) and swapped and stole silly gifts from each other. The guides played cards, and we got them some candies for Christmas as well, which they enjoyed (and then got us Snickers every day–there is a line from Ukraine that some of my colleagues from there will recognize: “What you got them, they got you better,” Absolutely). Tomorrow, we were to wake early to finally leave behind the vestiges of villages and head into the pass. We slept with the wind pushing hard at unseen cracks in our window.
Early, bright, and excited, we walked through Manang. What had seemed a ghost town in the past two days had revived overnight,
as Nepalis went about their business–walking, shopping, enjoying the sun. In a moment that proves karma exists, a small child ran up to Shane and punched him in the junk. Yep. Kumar and Jake both saw it and in the retelling, I imagined some small screamer running like a charger to avenge himself on the ginger who insulted his Lama. The story made the rounds, and chuckles could be elicited from us, guides, and porters alike when thinking of the little warrior.
We started to turn north, into the Thorung basin that would lead to the pass. Clouds and storm whipped around the top of Annapurna III, looking ominous, but staying out of the northward valley. The silver and gray contrasted the cerulean blue, and made for a beautiful backdrop when looking back down the basin. Somehow, more trekkers converged at this point of the trail, so we were leapfrogging certain groups. Many trekkers were filming themselves with GoPros or other cameras that were powered by solar patches–it was interesting (though I couldn’t imagine editing or watching endless videos of shaky hiking!) The vegetation had shrunk to simple sagebrush like bushes–we were above 14,000 feet and the struggle for life was harsh. We were in an environment that belonged to the high alpine. Yet, yaks still grazed on the shrubs, and as we turned one corner, Kancha’s sharp eye spotted the Blue Sheep.
Blue sheep are native to the Himalaya, and resemble desert bighorns…kinda. Their horns spread out in a widened “M” shape,and their coats can–apparently–have a bluish sheen,
hence the name. They are responsible for the many game tracks that crisscross prominently in the Thorung basin, only a few inches wide and above sheer drops into Jharsong River (that which empties the Thorung basin) below. Also, they are the delicious prey of the snow leopard! Sadly, we saw no snow leopards–like many of the great mammals, we decided they were better as trophies or ground into virility powder or worn about the shoulders. It is illegal to hunt snow leopards (and blue sheep, and many animals in Nepal) but the money that a pelt brings in might mean the difference between starvation and survival. Not that the hunters make the bulk of the money–that’s the middlemen who transport the pelts to the foreign black markets. Enforcing laws in the rough and wild environment of the Himalaya (rarely will snow leopards venture near the heavily-used trekking paths) is notoriously difficult, and corruption obviously plays a significant role in the trade. If the species recovers from hunting, they still face habitat degradation and climate change–I hope the snow leopard is around for my niece to dream of seeing in many years, but I fear this amazing creature may simply be that–a fading dream.
Before reaching Yak Kharka (a collection of small teahouses clinging to the slopes), we crossed a wide open cirque that looked straight up at Chulu, a massive Himal that formed the eastern boundary to the Thorung basin. At this point, we were completely encircled by great peaks–the Annapurna massif to the south, Chulu’s arcing cirque to the east and north, and Thorung to the west. Our only way to leave the cirque was the pass on the shoulder of Thorung. It was beautiful and desolate, and we would be there in two days.
The wind had howled all night at Yak Kharka, but it was starkly beautiful when I had to make a midnight paseo to the frozen toilet. But by morning, the winds had died down and we were ready to head up to our last stop–Thorung Phedi–under a clear sky. However, Katie had taken ill–a stomach bug combined with altitude?–and we conferred on what we could do. Down or up? Just Katie down? All of us? Kumar suggested she go down, but Katie herself had a vote. She decided to rest for a few hours, see if she felt better, and then we could head on. So we waited; it was only a half day to Thorung Phedi, we had time. Before midday, Katie rallied–she looked better and stronger–and we trekked out of Yak Kharka.
The paths were noticeably skinnier and snakier towards Thorung Phedi. The basin narrowed and narrowed, scree fields falling into the mostly frozen river below. It became harder to see the mountains surrounding us for the steepness of the valley. There was almost no vegetation here, just rock and stone and ice. The path on the east side of the valley had been destroyed in a landslide a few years ago, so we were on the west side. Signs warning of landslides and screefall helped us quick foot across some patches, and we stopped once to watch a rockslide crash down the eastern wall.
The valley eventually opened up into a rock basin of sheer walls. It was quieter here, as the immensity of the Himalaya impressed itself on us trekkers. Thorung Phedi, really just one large teahouse compound, sat on an outcropping in the midst of this stark splendor. The remains of the previous Thorung Phedi eroded away down in the river bottom; a flood had destroyed the first attempt at ‘civilizing’ this section of the wild. The teahouse featured enormous windows overlooking the basin and the valley, and across the miles and miles we trekked, Annapurna to the south. I would love to have seen the
caravan moving those plate glass windows up the valley. As we drank tea in the main room, the enormity of what we had done and what we still had to do sank in. Here we were at 14,500 feet, and we still had over 3,000 feet to go. All the planning and hiking and acclimatizing had been for the coming day.
A French trekking group sang some songs and celebrated the coming day (we both would be heading over the pass), but I preferred Kumar’s quiet encouragement and review of our strengths. The night came black and limitless, and the billions of stars swung overhead in crystalline perfection. Hana and I discussed again and again exactly what we should bring with us on the pass, and what would go with the porters. It’s hard to sleep at altitude, and when you know that you will be waking in a few hours and have to perform at your best, well…rest seems even further away. But eventually we zipped ourselves into our bags against the cold, full of nervous energy and excitement. In a few short hours, we would be rolling out of our sleeping bags in darkness to begin our final steps over and out of the Himalaya.